When you're angry, your heart races and your body temperature rises. It can feel like you have a nuclear reactor inside you, one that's going to blow if you don't let off some steam. And for many of us, exercise is our go-to outlet when it comes to cooling off.
But exercising when you're angry isn't always the safest bet. Learn why — and more about the exercise and anger link — below.
What's the Relationship Between Exercise and Anger?
There's a large body of data that shows that exercise, especially cardio, can help put you in a better mood. In fact, a June 2016 Journal of Psychiatric Research meta-analysis of 25 previously published randomized controlled trials found that exercise has a "significant antidepressant effect" among people with depression.
When it comes to anger specifically, there isn't a ton of research. But scientists are starting to dig deeper into exercise and anger.
For example, in a small July 2019 study in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, researchers recruited a group of 16 men who tend to get angry easily. They showed participants images that were meant to evoke emotion — anger, fear, happiness — along with neutral images before and after 30 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous cycling. They measured participants' anger levels using questionnaires as well as brain activity.
What they found was that exercise did improve an angry mood. The men felt less angry immediately after their bike ride, Nathaniel Thom, PhD, lead author of the study and associate professor at Wheaton College, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
He explains that mood tends be fuzzier than emotions. In the study, he and his team defined emotions as relatively short-term and set off by a trigger, like someone cutting you off in traffic, whereas you can just wake up in a bad mood, a longer-lasting state of mind. Their results showed exercise improved an angry mood but not the intensity of anger as an emotion.
Exercise can also serve as a control valve. "Regular exercise has been shown to reduce anger and allow people to manage their anger much more effectively, " says Srini Pillay, MD, psychiatrist and author of Tinker Dabble Doodle Try.
Case in point: A January 2019 study in Asian Nursing Research found that among nurses in South Korea, those who exercised regularly showed lower levels of anger compared to those who didn't exercise. They also exhibited higher levels of anger control.
So, How Does Exercise Help Improve Angry Moods?
Scientists are still teasing apart just why exercise seems to smooth over your frayed edges. One theory is that it's a good outlet for frustration and may help close the loop on your body's physiological stress response.
"If you have a big enough stressor, your body is going to dump glucose into your bloodstream," Thom says. "If you use it to run away from, say, a lion, then you no longer have glucose roaming around in your bloodstream. If you have a crappy meeting with your boss and then go sit in front of your desk, you still have all that glucose floating around in your blood," which in turn can contribute to a higher risk of heart disease and diabetes, he adds.
Exercise also influences serotonin, a brain chemical involved in mood, Dr. Pillay says. "We know that anger is associated with a decrease in serotonin," he says. "Exercise can increase serotonin activity."
What About Preventing Anger?
It turns out you don't have to wait until you're mad to reap the benefits of exercise on your mood. In Thom's study, researchers found that a single bout of moderate-to-intense aerobic exercise prevented angry moods. When participants exercised prior to viewing a series of pictures meant to evoke emotion, the images were less likely to put them in an angry state. Thom says his group may be the first to demonstrate this effect.
"Exercise almost had this prophylactic effect," he says. "This would be like taking Tums before you eat spicy food. If you know you're about to go into a situation that's going to put you in an angry mood, my study suggests that if you exercise ahead of time, there's less of a chance you'll end up in an angry mood."
Scientists aren't yet sure why this happens, Thom adds. They need to continue to explore how exercise changes the brain and the potential underlying neurobiological mechanism at work.
How to Exercise Safely When Angry
While exercise can be a good outlet for your anger, you need be careful, too. Your keyed-up emotional state may leave you at risk for injury.
Try your best to simmer down — even just a little — before jumping in. "Even though you're doing a good thing by exercising, you don't want the end result to be bad because your judgement is clouded by anger," says Gideon Akande, Chicago-based fitness and wellness coach.
Another good reason to cool off before breaking a sweat: It could help protect your heart. In an October 2016 study in Circulation, researchers observed a relationship between intense physical activity, anger and heart attack. People who heavily exerted themselves while mad had triple the odds of having a heart attack within an hour, independent of other risk factors like smoking or high blood pressure.
The Best Workouts to Try When You're Mad
After you've calmed down, choose your activity wisely. Your first instinct may be to head to a boxing class to pound out your frustration. But that might not be the best option when you're still upset.
"There's a level of finesse, style and mindfulness that comes with boxing. You have to be relaxed, poised and calm in order to be successful," Akande says. "If you're too tense, it takes away from your mental acuity."
Mixing emotion and exercise, especially activities that involve precise technique like boxing or kickboxing — especially if you aren't proficient in the sport — can open the door for mistakes and potential injuries.
"The problem isn't anger but how you adjust the flame to just the right amount."
Plus, Mitch Abrams, PsyD, sports psychologist and author of Anger Management in Sport, says it's best to avoid any activities that involve striking — no mixed-martial arts, no kicking, no punching, no heavy bag work. While those actions might feel cathartic, he says you may ingrain a pattern of violent behavior. "If it feels good, you're more likely to repeat that behavior the next time you're in an angry state," Abrams says.
It also might not help as much as you'd think: A small June 2016 study in Perceptual and Motor Skills found that individuals who participated in combat-like exercises did not reduce aggressive feelings.
However, researchers did find that participants who did rowing instead showed a significant decrease in aggressive feelings — a good reason to check out the rowing machine at the gym (or simulate one at home). Running can also be a good outlet, according to Dr. Pillay. "It decreases anxiety, hostility and aggression," he says.
If you feel the need to burn off excess energy, Akande suggests sprinkling in some sprint intervals. "Maybe go for a jog and after every five minutes, add in a quick 15-second burst. Then return to steady state," he says. "This will give you that rush and exhilaration, but it's a controlled environment to work out your frustration."
Regardless if you're exercising at the gym or outside, be mindful of others around you. "Your anger sometimes allows you to be more out of control with your body, hands and footwork," Akande says. "The last thing you want to do is hurt someone else."
No matter what, warm up and start slowly, he adds. If you haven't been exercising regularly or the intensity of your workout is higher than normal, your body may be quite sore the next day. Be sure to hydrate, rest and give your body time to recover.
Remember: Anger isn't good or bad. "Anger is hard-wired into us," Abrams says. "The problem isn't anger but how you adjust the flame to just the right amount." Exercise is a good way to toggle things down a notch — but it's just one tool to have in your anger-management toolbox.
- Journal of Psychiatric Research: “Exercise as a treatment for depression: A meta-analysis adjusting for publication bias”
- Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: “Acute Exercise Prevents Angry Mood Induction but Does Not Change Angry Emotions”
- Asian Nursing Research: “Relationships between Exercise Behavior and Anger Control of Hospital Nurses”
- Circulation: “Physical Activity and Anger or Emotional Upset as Triggers of Acute Myocardial Infarction”
- Perceptual and Motor Skills: “Does Exercise Reduce Aggressive Feelings? An Experiment Examining the Influence of Movement Type and Social Task Conditions on Testiness and Anger Reduction”